Sunday, September 27, 2009

Heritage and Sligo – some musings on 2 July 2008

This was partly a diary entry, partly an opportunity to reflect upon my views of conservation, on what was the fourth full day in Ireland.

The weather forecast had indicated a day of torrential rain today, and when it turned out not to be raining, we had decided to go to Enniskillen. When I accidentally turned into the wrong road, past Knockvicar, and there seemed to be the first signs of sun, we decided to take the smaller road to Sligo, through the hills, and then decide where to go. Bordering County Leitrim, which itself borders Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, our decision would have been made for us 20 years ago. To cross the border would have been difficult, entailing queues and perhaps searches. Instead, I spent the day with our UK passports in my shirt pocket. Noone has asked to see these; on my third visit to Ireland I had travelled on an out-of-date passport, and risked being sent back to my own country, presumably to the North. No such problems today; but I wonder how many of the holiday homes so much in evidence in Sligo and Leitrim are patronised by UK citizens from the North rather than by people from the much more distant cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick. We will be visiting the Erne on the North, which before the Troubles was a growing holiday area. I recall a somewhat quirky TV programme in which someone from tourism in the North was extolling the virtues of the Erne – apparently filmed from a boat in which he was on his own.

Sligo was soon reached; with a population one-third of that of Wallasey, and yet crowded and congested, so that we did not park. Instead we drove along the coast to Strandhill, a small seaside resort that reminded Sara somewhat of beach resorts in Anglesey. A very wide and steep slipway led down to a stony beach, beyond which there were wide if poorly-accessed sands. Prominent signs erected by Sligo County Council warned visitors against swimming, and stated that “There is no lifeguard on duty”. A young woman sitting cross-legged on the sea wall gave the lie to the latter, while there were numerous people in the water, sea-canoeing, surfing and swimming. This is a country in which there are dire penalties for breaking laws that seem rarely to be enforced, like those fining gum-chewers 150 euros for not depositing their gum in a bin. At Mullaghmore we followed the dog round with a plastic bag, and a young woman commended us, but said that the law on dog mess was rarely adhered to. Perhaps the direct flouting of planning principles, in the provision of suburban housing in unserviced locations, reflects this disdain for inconvenient laws.

We had coffee outside a pub, which, like many in Ireland, proved to be much bigger than it looked from the outside, and watched a group in black ties leaving a wake that had evidently taken place there. Families seem more together here, and people friendlier – perhaps one result is less evidence of abusive children. It is an irony that a country that regularly elects a conservative government (albeit sometimes with leftish-nationalist leanings) and is so dominated by the Catholic church, both anathema to me, should feature such friendly, polite and generous people.

A reminder of a different kind of conservatism awaited us at Lissadell House, which we visited on impulse. It was described in our out-of-date guide as being in a forest, belonging to the Gore-Booth family, and having teas served in the basement kitchen. Only the former remains true, and since the house and 200 acres were sold by the surviving Gore-Booths in 2003, for 3.7 million euros, much has changed. It has been acquired by two barristers and is being developed as a much more modern heritage attraction.

One less attractive feature was the need to park (anywhere outside the official car park was strictly subject to wheel-clamping) and then to the far end of the “Coach House” to find out the charges for visiting the house (and indeed the separate charges for the exhibition and gardens). 6 euros each, for a guided tour of the house, seemed not so bad, although it was a rushed tour of about 45 minutes, and Sara, walking with a stick, had to walk a fair distance to get to the front of the house. A small party assembled there, and we were conducted quickly round by a female guide who told us that she took tours round every day from 1030 onwards. Sara commented about one feature, and was surprised when the guide told her, warmly enough, that many people never asked anything or commented at all.

The public rooms in the house proved, frankly, ugly and cold, with the exception of a central room used as a music room, which was breath-taking. Much more interesting was the story of the family, very much an English family, but, unlike many whose houses were burnt down (one reason why there are so many fewer country houses in Ireland than in the UK), the English estates were used to support the Lissadell estate and some of the excesses of absentee landlordism were avoided. Quite what “heritage” this now represents for visitors from the Irish Republic or Northern Ireland, is unclear. In England, most country house owners were English, as were their tenants. That the English owners of Lissadell were concerned about possible rebellion is shown by the bars across some of the basement windows.

Yet concerns about Irish rebellion were much closer to home. Two Gore-Booth sisters brought up at Lissadell during the Victorian era were to prove rebellious. Eve, the younger sister, was to become a suffragette, but her older sister Constance, was to become a revolutionary. Having been trained by her father in shooting, she turned this into support for the Easter Rising of 1916, for which she was condemned to death, her sentence only commuted because she was female. After release, and married to a Polish aristocrat named Markewicz (the family had had him investigated, and discovered that he had the right to the title but no land or wealth went with it) she became successively the first female M.P. in the Westminster parliament and then the first female TD in the new Dail. Representing Sinn Fein, she did not take up the first seat and was part of the Anti-Treaty forces, but when she died in 1927 (aged 59) around 400,000 people lined the streets of Dublin before her funeral. Countess Markewicz had been disowned by her family, but he story is part of the “heritage” of Lissadell, commemorated in an exhibition there. Why she joined nationalist forces for a nation that was not hers is uncertain, as, indeed are the reasons why she went against the interests of her class. Over 80 years after her death, one wonders at the meaning of her life at this house, and indeed, with Irish politics still nominally divided along neo-nationalist lines, what Irish visitors make of her is unclear. Probably the barristers who own the place now see her as a quaint if misguided figure, as many revolutionary figures from 1968 and after are now viewed (although not by figures like Sarkozy).

A further “heritage” is one whose details are contained in a folder of press cuttings on the billiard table in the room where the tour is assembled. The “Lissadell affair” indicates the strange nature of ownership and the legal fictions that surround it. What seems to have happened is that the Gore-Booths owned the estate into the 1939 war, in which two of the heirs were killed. This left an heir, Michael, who had been declared insane in 1944, and, it seems, spent most of the rest of his life (he died in 1987) in a mental hospital in England. Other family members lived at Lissadell, at least in summer, but Michael was declared a ward of court, and upon inheritance on 1952, the Court Solicitor was deemed to manage his affairs. This was challenged by a family member, living at the house, who alleged mismanagement at the estate, including the sale of timber without proper accounting or re-planting.

In 1961 this was the subject of inquiry, but with no opinion issued until 1965. When it appeared, this opinion accused the family member of interfering, claiming that she had no right to live in the house or interfere with the affairs of the estate. It was suggested that she was only allowed to live there because it was assumed that these would be Michael’s wishes; but it was also suggested in the press in 1971 that, had Ireland had an Ombudsman, the “Lissadell affair” would prove a classic case of maladministration for it to investigate. To me, it demonstrates some of the falsities and fictions around the notion of “ownership”. Who, ultimately, owns our environment- if not all of us? When mental incapacity meant that the legal owner could not be entrusted with ownership, a strange branch of the state, with strict trusteeship duties, was forced to intervene and consider, or determine, what that owner would have done had his mental capacity been adequate. What appears to have resulted is the rundown of the Lissadell estate – although how far that would have happened anyway, and how legitimate were the “interests” of that “estate”, are different matters.

There were some connections with Lissadell and W B Yeats, and indeed the area around there has been dubbed “Yeats country”, as though his spirit still animated the place. Sara commented, when we passed a signpost for his grave, that often the burial place, or places where an author had lived, provides no clues, or even produces false clues, about that person’s art or inspiration. Indeed, the area must have changed so much in the almost 70 years since the poet died, that it is hard to envisage what it must have been like. What Yeats would think of modern Irish society is also unclear.

He would probably not approve of the European Union, although our visit to Murraghmore, off the main road, brought a reminder of this. Murraghmore’s remote location, as a headland overlooking a bay, has been much compromised by the erection of numerous modern bungalows, some apparently as holiday homes. We decided to visit the beach, which has a surviving dune system behind it, but our attention was caught by a bin from which crows, no respecter of waste management policies, had pulled out various items of rubbish, which lay strewn around. A noticeboard stated that a substantial part of Murraghmore Head is a Special Area of Conservation; it stressed the inadvertent damage caused to the dunes by dogs, by trampling and by the casual and agricultural removal of sand. Despite the "traditional" nature of the latter, it is now discouraged. We had a reminder the following day of a similar EU policy protecting habitats, with bans on the hand-digging of small quantities of turf. This indicates a clash between two approaches to conservation, one stressing cultural links with environmental practices, the other overriding such practices in the interests of a largely inanimate nature.

A final point of discussion was presented by our final stop of a long day’s journey. After eating in a largely deserted pub in Bundoran, we followed a scenic route through the hills towards Lough Allen. We drove past a Waterways Ireland sign to Spencer Harbour, and turned round to follow a driveway to one of only two harbours on Lough Allen. Lough Allen is the highest of several lakes on the Shannon and has played a part in the hydropower scheme that was one of the Irish Free State’s first major infrastructure investments, involving its earliest parastatal, the Electricity Supply Board. The adjustment of levels on the Shannon was critical after this scheme was completed in the late 1920s, and one consequence was the cessation of navigation through the Lough Allen Canal, through which the last boat passed to the Shannon in 1932. The levels of Lough Allen and of the small Acres Lake, downstream, were kept much lower preventing the use of the Canal, which became derelict. The ambiguities in hydropower, its effect on nature conservation and on water transport should be stressed.

The use of Lough Allen for freight transport has long ceased; one curiosity is the derelict brickworks next to Spencer Harbour, which has the remains of timber landings next to it, but which were probably never used after the nineteenth century. Its use for leisure transport has returned, at considerable expense. Gentle campaigning by the IWAI led to restoration of the first section to Acres Lake in 1994, and the new lock, with variable rise, into Lough Allen ten years later. I had already visited Acres Lake and met an angler there, who confirmed that the lake level had been greatly raised to permit restoration, while extensive new jetties had been provided. Despite this, there was one boat moored there and one hire boat that arrived whilst I was there.

Spencer Harbour also featured a solitary moored boat, and there seemed to be one boat at the harbour distant on the far side of the lake. Shannon harbours are very different from installations on British waterways; they usually feature access roads and car parking, w.c. and shower blocks, and extensive staging. The environmental impact of this engineering is unclear, and it is noteworthy that WI now plan to extend navigation up from Lough Allen towards Annagh, with the need for dredging and some rock removal. To “restore” navigation is thus to change the environment and perhaps damage tranquillity and modify landscapes, with some impact on wildlife. Ironically, this is to try to increase patronage by visiting boats, whose numbers seem to be declining. Like much “development” in Ireland, this does not always serve to assure greater sustainability.

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